Sunday, September 3, 2017

Revelatory Cooking Tip: Throw a Little Water

I've been doing a few weeks of Blue Apron (see my notes), just to expand my cooking perspective. Nothing they offer is surprising or even particularly interesting. But it's a different thing to actually do a cooking move rather than to just know about it.

(My father's cousin Manny would always drive to a destination the day before an appointment, just to orient himself. I always chalked this up to neurosis, but, I have to admit, there've been restaurants I'd known about for years which I'd never tried...and, having drove by the place - even if I didn't go in - it would suddenly became a concrete entity, much more likely to be visited in future.)

One such move: slap a steak, or some chicken thighs, or a pork chop, into a hot pan. Cook a while. Flip. Cook for a slightly shorter while. Serve.

Naturally, I'm aware of this technique. I think of it as the classic 1953 bachelor approach, performed with dangling cigarette and a tumbler of whiskey. But this is not usually my thing. I broil, I grill, I sauce, I cut up and stir fry. I never do steak at home (home is for health), and I'm generally not a guy who slaps flesh in a pan, sprinkles salt and pepper, and walks away to clean my revolver or holler out my window to the neighboring tenement.

It works ok, but, by coincidence, I was recently talking to one of my hero chefs, Frank, the owner of Francesco's in White Plains (see photo essay here), who was explaining how he cooks meat at home. It's exactly this move, which makes sense given how old-school Frank is. Except....he splashes a little water in the pan toward the end, when the meat starts to look slightly dry. Then he covers it for a while. And then uncovers again.

It's the sort of suggestion that seems too slight to really matter. But I did it, and it's a miracle. It utterly changes everything - texture, flavor. It's the missing piece. A little water!

A recent example
(accompanied by pan-blistered shisitos, this roast potato recipe, sliced cukes,
and scraped up scallions and garlic from the pan).

Same treatment with pork tenderloin.
Note that I've seasoned both meats with Penzey's Ozark Seasoning. Also: the combo of blistered shisitos (you can get them at Trader Joe's) and roast potatoes is great, and reheats like a dream.

Per my nature, I've been giddily expanding on this. If I'm preparing chicken thighs, I'll smash cloves of garlic, and throw one under each thigh to start. Plus a couple bay leaves. I've used white wine instead of water, and I've started dumping leftover starches (rice, chopped-up baked potato, whatever) into the pan alongside the meat at the flip point (I'm not cooking particularly greasy meats). Maybe some frozen or leftover vegetables, as well (though more often I'll steam or roast separately).

With the wine and garlic version, I've sort of reinvented chicken scarpariello. If I keep going, I may reinvent lots more things...just as my year of total panini immersion led eventually to tacos (but that's another story).

More on Frank's Cooking Tip
Cooking Tip Applied to Eggs


Brian S. said...

Years ago in Tulsa, I used to walk four miles to go to a burger shack called Ron’s. Back then, Ron’s was located in what looked like, and probably at one time was, a little country shack out near Harvard. There was a long counter with about 12 stools. No tables. The place was always packed and there’d be a line of people waiting behind each stool. Slick downtown lawyers rubbing shoulders with construction workers on lunch break all waiting for a chance to eat one of Ron’s burgers. Ron Baber manned the griddle in those days and he was the best burger cook I’ve ever encountered. He put each burger through about ten steps. Meat was pounded flat, seasoned with salt and spices, coated with lard using a paintbrush, cooked on a superhot grill (500 degrees). Now Ron’s style of burger is flat and very thin (about a third of an inch thick) and as big as an old 45 RPM record. The meat is succulent and juicy and melts in with the cheese. The best chef in New York could not make a better burger. “When I was young, when other guys were buying “Playboy,’ I was buying “Gourmet’ magazine,” Ron once told a reporter. That’s no surprise to me.

Now the point of all of this is that Ron's last step just before he served the burger was, with the burger still on the grill, to squirt water on the grill and cover it with a dome. Ron sounds a lot like Frank. They have never been within a thousand miles of each other. But great cooks think alike. from Brian Schwartz

Jim Leff said...

I'm betting Ron spent some time in central Connecticut, where steamed cheeseburgers are made the same way, with a dome. Jackson Hole is the only operation in NYC that does the same, fwiw....

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